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Every rose has its thorns

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - If you thought Rosedale Transport was named after the affluent Toronto neighbourhood of the same name, think again. In reality, the trucking company was named after an apartment building in the gritty city of Hamilton - an...

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – If you thought Rosedale Transport was named after the affluent Toronto neighbourhood of the same name, think again. In reality, the trucking company was named after an apartment building in the gritty city of Hamilton – an apartment building Rosedale Transport founder Rolly Uloth managed in the 1960s, in part so he and his wife Mary would have a free place to live.

“If you looked after an apartment building, you’d get an apartment for free,” Ultoh recalled during the popular How They Did It session of a recent Driving for Profit seminar. “That saved us about $100 a month, but $100 a month 40 years ago was a fair bit of money.”

Uloth had recently emigrated from Nova Scotia, where he had been working since the age of 10 when he became janitor of the one-room schoolhouse he attended for a buck a week. New to Ontario, Uloth was working at Stelco Steel and managing Rosedale Apartments, which were owned by Uloth’s future business partner, Barry Smith. In 1969, Uloth’s wife gave birth to their first son. But two weeks later, with the promise of a management position at Stelco on the horizon, a labour strike ground the plant to a halt and left Uloth at a crossroads.

Smith had been kicking around the idea of getting into the trucking business for some time, and now Uloth was faced with a decision.

“It was a true fork in the road,” he recounted at Driving for Profit. Uloth joined Smith in purchasing a single truck and they were in business the day after Labour Day, 1969.

“I never drove a truck till I owned one,” Uloth said, admitting there was some risk involved in giving up the prospect of a management job at Stelco for the uncertainty of a trucking job. “When you’re 22 years old, you can’t spell risk. You don’t see it. All you see is the opportunity to do something. That first year, I saw more paydays than pays. Our first year, sales were $27,000, so there wasn’t much left for anybody.”

Rosedale Transport began with two accounts in a regulated environment in which getting an authority to operate was as difficult, if not more so, than finding customers.  Uloth recalled the intimidation tactics employed by the big carriers as new entrants would go through the process of obtaining an operating licence. Those operating authorities were very restrictive. Uloth recalled obtaining one that allowed his company to haul within an 11-mile radius of a specific customer’s location.

“You can almost throw a stone that far,” he quipped. However, there were benefits to regulation as well. Uloth said rates were in some instances better then than they are today.

“The pricing was there, but it supported an inefficient trucking system as well,” he recalled.

With two flooring materials companies as clients, Rosedale was officially in business. But those early years were not easy. Uloth recalled fueling up and having his credit card rejected, even though he’d made a payment. Uloth had to surrender his wristwatch to pay for the fuel. He still begrudges that oil company today.

Over time, Uloth noticed an opportunity while on his delivery runs.

“Other manufacturers and wholesalers ran their own trucks,” Uloth said. “Every one of them had five trucks and if there were 10 of them, you would have 50 trucks that would follow each other around making deliveries to the same places.”

Rosedale began approaching those suppliers and convincing them one by one to get rid of their own trucks and consolidate their loads on Rosedale’s trucks.

“That was the start of our growth,” he recalled.

Those first few years in business, as challenging as they were, provided many lessons for the fledgling businessman.

“I learned very quickly that you have to pay yourself. It’s fine to work for all these guys and make them happy, but I made the determination that I had to get a paycheque every week, so being fair to me was one of the first things (I learned),” Uloth said. “Then, with the shipping public and receivers, we had to do what we said we were going to do. If we said one-day service, give them one-day service.”

Operating with honesty and integrity and paying bills on time were other building blocks for Rosedale.

“In the early years, we had times where we couldn’t pay some of our leasing guys as quickly as we should’ve, but we didn’t hide from them,” Uloth said.

Rosedale Transport was initially run out of the Uloth household, with Rolly using customers’ phones to call home to see where his next delivery would be. As the family grew (Mary and Rolly gave birth to a daughter and another son), so too did the company. It moved beyond the family home and soon a warehouse was built in Hamilton.

Ron Uloth, the oldest of Rolly’s children, remembers playing in the warehouse and “licking stamps” as early as seven or eight years of age.

“We would get to play in the warehouse because there was nothing going on there during the day,” Ron remembered. “We didn’t get many snacks while at home, but the coffee truck came around the warehouse and you’d get a donut or a pop.”

Hanging around the warehouse was also one of the surest ways to spend some time with their hardworking father, who usually wouldn’t arrive home till late after putting in a full day of work. Rosedale Transport has always been very much a family company. Ron began working at the warehouse in earnest as a teenager, while both his younger siblings also worked at the company for a time (his sister is still involved today).

Today, Rob serves as vice-president and general manager. The elder Uloth said there are definitely advantages to being a family-run company.

“They truly have skin in the game,” he said of family businesses like Rosedale. “Some of the companies that are owned by the multi-nationals – they have good people at those companies, but their day is guided by what senior management wants done. I think family-owned companies, for the most part, are closer to what’s really happening rather than waiting for the statistics to come by their desks. They have a gut feel for things. That gut feel, you don’t learn that at school and you’re not always right with it, but if you don’t make (those decisions), you don’t make good ones either.”

Ron adds that as a family-run business, decisions can be made quickly. Even on a Sunday night over a roast beef dinner. However, Rolly quickly adds that the company’s management team is involved in almost every decision.

“They can have their say,” he said. “They don’t have to be fearful of coming in and telling us what they think.”

Rosedale Transport has seen steady growth, including the launch of a major warehousing division, the purchase of a US-based trucking company in Dalton, Georgia, and the opening of new facilities in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Granby and London. While flooring materials still comprise about 50% of the company’s business, it has diversified to haul pretty much anything that goes into a van trailer. Over time, the company saw an opportunity to begin storing product for its customers.

The warehousing division has since taken on a life of its own, which was never meant to be the case, Rolly said.

“It started of as complimentary to the trucking side. People would buy a truckload of product but could only take half of it, so they needed a place to keep half a load. That’s the root of where it started,” he recalled.

As word of mouth spread, Rosedale found itself leasing more warehouse space and offering complete transportation solutions more efficiently than customers were able to on their own. In one instance, a large customer closed its own distribution centre and began relying on Rosedale for all its warehousing needs.

“The first one we did, the president of the company told me plainly that there’d be two heads in the rope if it failed,” Uloth chuckled.

While Rosedale Transport’s story is one of success, it wasn’t immune to the challenges of the past few years. Still, the co
mpany continued investing even as the recession reached its darkest days.

“During the last two years, we continued adding equipment to the fleet and continued to grow our markets that we serve,” Uloth said. “We just didn’t take our eyes of the ball. We gave our people increases last year, which not too many people did. We continued being a profitable company through these past few years and now all of a sudden tractors are hard to get, trailers are stretched out. We already bought them and we’re buying more as we sit here.”

Still, Ron points out most of the new equipment will replace older equipment. The company is not looking to expand aggressively through acquisitions or by adding capacity.

Rolly says most of the companies that are available for acquisition do not excite him.

“Unfortunately, I feel a lot of the companies that are out there that might be available are right at the end of the line,” he said. “They’ve struggled. They’re good people who’ve worked hard, but in my opinion the most you could pay for them is the value of the assets because how do you pay for a business in today’s market where shippers are not loyal and may be gone tomorrow?”

Instead, the Uloths both agree the company will be best served by growing its business with its best existing customers.

“We looked at our existing customer base and that is where we grew a lot of our business,” Rolly said, noting three quarters of the business the company picked up through its expansion into Vancouver came from existing customers. At the same time, he said Rosedale is wary of relying too much on any one customer or industry. And Rolly said he’s not afraid to walk away from customers who won’t contribute to the company’s fiscal health.

“We’ll eliminate some customers maybe,” he said. “We’ve been known to do that sometimes. The last one I threw out was $4 million a year in business. We’re not averse to throwing some away. Gross sales are not something that’s paramount in our lives. Margins are paramount, gross sales are not.”

When asked what was the biggest mistake trucking companies made through the recession, Uloth indicated relaxing fuel surcharges.

“We don’t give much on fuel,” he said. “Shippers have their own fuel surcharge charts and I don’t know what Ouija board they use to get to these numbers, but they all have their own Ouija boards.”

In fact, Uloth said Rosedale managed to keep its rates in tact even through the recession.

“Our key accounts have not had any rate reductions,” he said.

As business picks back up and freight volumes increase, Rolly said Rosedale will not depart from its traditional model of slow, steady growth.

“Over the years, we’ve just driven a slow ship through the ocean,” he said. And while some things haven’t changed, others certainly have. Rolly hasn’t had to worry about using his watch as collateral for fuel purchases any time recently.

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2 Comments » for Every rose has its thorns
  1. Jim Walton ( Stelco Utilities Combustion Dept. ) says:

    Your’s is truly a great success story.

  2. carolyne says:

    Rolly Uloth was the best boss I ever had

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